Tuesday, June 2, 2009

5-20-2007: 7th Easter (C)

Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60/Psalm 97/Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,29/John 17:20-26
From the Latin it comes into English in ablative case, literally meaning “on the edge.” When I was young they named a dance for it. And it got some headlines a few weeks ago after the Vatican’s International Theological Commission published its obituary or at least consigned it to…well, limbo.

Yes, Limbo has been given the boot. The Commission’s report wished to convey the sentiment that a good God would not consign unbaptized babies to hell and, therefore, Limbo (that “place” on the edge of paradise) should go. All well and good, you might agree, save for the irony that Limbo, as a theological construct, was created to do just that – alleviate the perception that God could be so cruel. Limbo was a theory created in the Middle Ages to counter St. Augustine’s long-held conclusion that, because of the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation, those unbaptized though innocent babies did indeed end up in hell -- though they suffer, according to Augustine, only the “mildest condemnation” (what a relief to know there’s compassion in unjust punishment).

Ultimately Limbo is but a symptom of an immense theological problem: the necessity of Christ for salvation and the role the Church plays in mediating that grace of salvation through the sacraments. Why the Church would seek at this time to revisit Limbo is something even more mysterious. Perhaps Pope Benedict’s intent is to reinforce the platform of his papacy: the absolute necessity of Christ for salvation amid the threat of relativism. However, by abolishing Limbo, the Church invites argument on those very questions while simultaneously acknowledging that the answers seem to change with history – admitting, if you will, that truth is expressed in absolutely relative ways.

Perhaps such discussion means little to most. But the interplay between absolute and relative plays out in very practical ways. Take the on-going abortion debate as we approach the 2008 presidential election. While to be against abortion seems an absolute for Catholics – it is anything but, when pro-life and pro-choice forces interface in a democracy. And it’s an especially complex question for politicians and lawmakers. If a presidential candidate says he’s pro-choice does that excommunicate him, even when he can do virtually nothing to change the current practice? If a lawmaker votes funding for abortion does that make him “materially cooperative” in the act of abortion, equivalent to the doctor who performs the abortion? And is the citizen who votes for a pro-choice candidate also “materially cooperative” in the act of abortion even when he’s voting for the candidate for reasons other than his pro-choice stand? From my point of view, these are all relevant and relative questions, having no clear-cut, absolute, answers. While it might be desirable to have everything in black-and-white, we find ourselves, well -- in limbo -- as to the answers. But, alas, now that Limbo’s been misplaced, we may feel forced to go to extremes – the very thing that a reasoned religion would want to avoid.

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